For several years now, the technology industry has been pointing out the need for durable skills. These are the skills that go hand-in-hand with hardcore technical expertise to help IT pros work more effectively in teams and connect technology initiatives to organizational objectives. Skills like troubleshooting, planning and collaboration are found more and more frequently on job postings for tech positions.
The most in-demand durable skill, though, is communication. Organizations aren’t just looking for tech workers who will sit in a back room configuring servers or writing code. They need these individuals to work closely with business units, sharing their expertise as everyone works together on solutions. A recent CompTIA survey confirmed this—44% of people responding to the survey said that the ability to explain technology relevance to the overall business picture was the most-prized skill for completing IT projects.
The Communications Stack
Most technology workers are familiar with the concept of a stack. This could be a protocol stack that defines how traffic moves across a network or a solutions stack that describes all the pieces of a business system. When it comes to the durable skill of communications, thinking about a stack may help build the skills necessary for ultimately explaining business value.
Here’s my suggestion for the five layers of a communications stack for IT pros:
1. The Function Layer. At the most basic level, tech workers should be able to describe what a piece of technology does. The trick here is making sure you don’t get caught up in tech jargon. Most executives and business managers don’t need to know about speeds and feeds or fine details at the transistor level. They want a plain-English description of how the device or app works, which leads into further discussion. The first step in describing things plainly is having detailed technical knowledge and skills, which can be built through training and certification.
2. The Systems Layer. Most technology doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The pieces that directly deliver value sit inside larger systems that provide supporting functions, and everything has to work together. ChatGPT is a perfect example of this. A CEO who says, “let’s go build our own ChatGPT” needs to understand that generative artificial intelligence (AI) relies on massive amounts of training data. If the data isn’t there, the app won’t give very good answers. Understanding how systems work is another skill that can be built through training and certification once the basics have been covered.
3. The Tradeoff Layer. It’s tempting to call this the Investment Layer because this is where the “what does it cost” question usually pops up. Explaining cost goes beyond the sticker price, though. Especially once all the system components are added in, there are going to be tradeoffs. Cybersecurity, availability and customization are all qualities that can move up and down depending on the appetite for spending, and this should all be laid out for a decision-maker before they write a check.
4. The Implementation Layer. Once a decision has been made on the specific technology pathway, business leaders need to understand the details of implementation. Schedule is the most obvious piece to include here, but there are other considerations such as the skills needed for operation (both in the IT team and in the business units) and any potential changes in workflow. Many IT projects fail because everyone assumed that giving the green light was the hardest part. A solid description of implementation will help set expectations and improve the odds of success.
5. The Impact Layer. This final layer is the most critical, but it’s also the least familiar. As organizations have been making technology more strategic, they need to know that the investments are going to pay off. The IT function doesn’t have much practice making return-on-investment (ROI) calculations since IT spending has traditionally been viewed as a sunk cost, but this is the question that executives are starting to ask. Being able to describe the potential impact of technology to organizational goals or risk mitigation is the type of communication skill that will truly make you stand out.
Although technical training and certifications can help provide the right foundation for the first layers of the communication stack, building the skills at the higher layers can be a bit more challenging. By definition, communication skills are not going to grow much in a solo environment. Learning how to describe tradeoffs, implementation and impact comes from practice, from watching others and from networking with peers who are sharing similar experiences. Just like strategic technology, though, the investment can pay off in a very promising upward trajectory.
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